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Swedish NATO Accession Facing Problems by Sven R. Larson

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Swedish NATO Accession Facing Problems


As a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO may soon add two new members. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomes applications from both Finland and Sweden. 

The Finnish government hopes to decide on membership in the coming weeks. Swedish opinion is growing more favorable, but a decision is likely months away.

If they decide to apply, both countries would face challenges. This is especially true for Sweden, whose admittance the alliance may subsequently come to regret. 

The same does not hold true for Finland. As I explained in January, the Finns approach NATO from an angle of thoughtful neutrality, based on its geo-strategic position and century-long special relationship to the Soviet Union and Russia. 

Sweden, on the other hand, has three problems that its government, as well as NATO, need to take seriously. 

Opportunistic foreign policy

Highest on the list is the history of Swedish foreign policy. As my January essay explained at length, Sweden has a track record of short-sighted opportunism in its international relations. This opportunism originated in the cooperation between Sweden and Nazi Germany during World War II, but carried over into the Cold War. Sanctimonious global preaching on human rights was coupled with intense support for some of the most brutal regimes around the world (provided they exhibited a socialist lapel pin). Official, widely boasted neutrality vs. NATO and the Warsaw Pact was coupled with Western military cooperation. 

The Swedish debate over NATO membership follows the same line of opportunism, focused as it is on the benefits that Sweden hopes to gain from NATO accession. No meaningful effort has been made to discuss what Sweden would have to selflessly do for NATO, let alone what the costs would be.

Following the Swedish debate over NATO, one easily gets the impression that as soon as membership is approved, U.S. Marines will flood Sweden and dispel any Russian threat. This will all happen without cost to Swedish taxpayers. 

This naive, self-centered approach is baffling to an outsider, but understandable given the predicament that Sweden put itself in when it dismantled its military. Whatever scraps are left are, according to the commander-in-chief back in 2013, just enough to hold Stockholm for one week in the face of an invading force. 

What was at the time, in the 1990s, an opportunistic virtue signal, is now a liability, the fixing of which comes with a substantial cost to the Swedish government. Finland does not have this problem, as they never followed in Swedish footsteps. To be fair, though, during the Cold War, Swedish neutrality—such as it was—helped bring some geo-political and even military stability to northern Europe. 

At the same time, since that stability was never principled, but only opportunistic, there were several incidents that could quickly have escalated to broader conflict. It is worth remembering a couple of them, as they illustrate the consequences of not making principled, long-term foreign policy commitments. 

Confrontations with the Soviets

In 1952, a Swedish maritime rescue plane, a Tp47 Catalina, searching for a missing airplane over international waters in the Baltic Sea, was shot down by a Soviet fighter plane. The Catalina made an emergency landing and the crew was rescued, but tensions between Stockholm and Moscow remained high for quite some time afterward.

The attack was no coincidence. Soon after World War II, Sweden signed a secret agreement with America and England to use U.S.-made equipment in surveillance operations of Soviet air and naval forces in the Baltic region. In their book Bortom horisonten [Beyond the Horizon] about Swedish aerial espionage on the Soviet Union, Lennart Andersson and Leif Hellström explain how Sweden effectively became an extended arm of NATO without having to make an official commitment to the alliance. 

On occasion, the flights deliberately violated Soviet airspace. One of the spy planes, a DC3, disappeared over the Baltic Sea. It was this plane that the Catalina was looking for.

Eager to maintain its official position of strict neutrality, the government in Stockholm did its best to give the impression that the DC3 had suffered an accident. It has subsequently been confirmed that the Soviets shot it down to signal what it thought about the spy operations and Swedish “neutrality.”

In the 1980s, another chapter was written in Sweden’s have-it-both-ways foreign policy. Still officially neutral, the country found itself dealing with multiple incidents of foreign submerged vessels in Swedish territorial waters. In the late fall of 1981, the Soviet submarine S-363, better known as U 137, ran aground in the archipelago of the county of Blekinge. Despite their clumsiness, the Soviets did send a signal to the Swedes that they did not consider the country to be all that “neutral” after all.

Approaching NATO membership, will Sweden abandon its short-sighted, opportunistic foreign policy? How will it deal with situations that benefit the alliance, but not Sweden? (The NATO bombings of Serbia in the late 1990s come to mind.) Does the Swedish government fully understand what it may be called upon to do as a NATO member?

Shouldering the cost of NATO membership

The next problem that the Swedish government will have to wrestle with, is the price tag for NATO membership. To comply with the 2%-of-GDP requirement for defense spending, the Swedish Parliament would have to increase its military budget by two thirds compared to 2019 levels. 

Getting the appropriations in place is a tall order for a government that continuously struggles with fiscal austerity. Once that is done, it is time to rebuild a military that was dismantled when in 1992 the Swedish Parliament determined that the world had reached a state of eternal peace and tranquility. 

Currently, according to, Sweden has 16,000 active-duty military personnel. This is equal to 1.56 per 1,000 residents of the country. Neighboring Denmark has 2.71, Finland is at 4.11, and Norway at 4.18. To reach the Finnish level, Sweden would have to expand its active-duty personnel by 163% to a total of 42,000. 

Furthermore, Finland has 900,000 military reservists; Sweden has none. To reach the Finnish level, adjusted for population, Sweden would need to train and equip 1.7 million reservists.

They would also have to align their military equipment purchases with NATO standards. Compatible investments will then have to be maintained, in part based on the NATO requirement that 20% of the military budget be spent on equipment

It gets trickier. Sweden cannot keep its military budget NATO compliant without violating current law. The rules for government appropriations require:

  • A spending cap three years out, 
  • A budget surplus over the business cycle, and
  • That no items in the budget be funded until the spending-revenue balance is established. 

These three features force the Swedish Parliament into hard, recurring appropriations battles. Those battles get tougher when slow economic growth—symptomatic for countries with large governments—yields inadequate tax revenue. This in turn leads to political tensions; it has become increasingly difficult, especially in recent years, to form budget-approving majorities in the Swedish Parliament. 

With the substantial rise in military spending required for a NATO membership, the Swedish Parliament would be forced to rewrite its budget appropriations laws, and possibly even make constitutional changes in order to exclude military spending from regular budget appropriations. It is questionable to what extent this is possible. Politicians on the Left would likely demand that spending on so-called renewable energy be exempt as well. 

As the experience from the 1990s bears witness to, this would cause a breakdown of fiscal discipline (in a country with one of the largest governments in the world), followed by economically crippling austerity policies and political instability. 

Hosting U.S. military bases

Then there is the cost for American military bases. Sweden offers many strategic positions for U.S. forces, especially in the form of the island of Gotland. It is strategically located in the middle of the Baltic Sea and is highly suitable for an air force base. 

If the U.S. air force established itself there, Sweden would have to cover a sizable portion of its operational costs. 

Suppose the base was only one third the size of the U.S. air force base in Lakenheath in Britain. In 2017, that base cost $2.9bn to maintain; for simplicity, let us assume that a Gotland base would run an annual budget of $1bn. This is equal to SEK 9.5 billion. 

As an indicator of the Swedish share of this cost, in 2016-2019, Japan paid approximately 37% of the cost of keeping U.S. military within its borders. Applying that share to a Gotland base, the Swedish government would be responsible for just over SEK 3.5 billion per year (in approximated 2017 figures).

This money would be added on top of the regular, NATO-mandated military budget. 

With my direct experience and decades-long analysis of Swedish politics, I question whether the Swedish Parliament can sustainably fund a NATO membership. However, even if they do, there is another, more controversial aspect, one that likely will not be discussed in public. 

A challenge from radical Islamism

In the past 20 years Sweden has undergone a rapid demographic transformation, with one of Europe’s highest rates of immigration from non-European countries. Most of the immigrants have been fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries, seeking peaceful opportunities to rebuild their lives.

Unfortunately, the large influx has also brought with it a rise in Islamic radicalism. Adjusted for population, Sweden was one of Europe’s most prolific suppliers of ISIS warriors. 

The surge in Islamic radicalism has been so strong that in 2019 the security service, SÄPO, published an alarming assessment of the growth of the movement. As recently as in January this year, a radical imam was deported for having gone too far in preaching Islamist violence. 

Despite such warnings, Sweden is the only country in Europe whose government is trying to de-emphasize the connections between Islam and jihadism. Its parliament refuses to follow the European trend of tougher legal measures against jihadists, raising questions regarding the ability of the Swedish government to keep radical Islamists out of the ranks of its military.

According to Statistics Sweden, today almost one third of all individuals in the age group ripe for military service has a foreign background. The definition is narrow, including only individuals who were born abroad, or whose both parents were born abroad

In recent years, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Turkey account for two thirds of all immigration. Furthermore, immigrants from these countries tend to be younger and dominated by men, which means that they likely constitute a larger share of the military-recruitment age group than of the rest of the population.

Bluntly speaking: when the Swedish government starts expanding its military ranks, it may find that a third or more of its recruits are young men from Muslim countries. This raises a sensitive but crucial question regarding how the rapid growth in military personnel will happen without radicalist infiltration. 

Most Muslims oppose radicalism in the name of their own religion; the most radical forms of Islamism are widely disliked in Muslim countries. That said, a large number of Muslims also support jihadist violence. Furthermore, a large part of the immigrant men that the Swedish military would be recruiting are refugees. This reminds us of a warning from Germany’s Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz back in 2016: radical Islamist groups insert their warriors among refugees bound for Europe. 

In short, Sweden, and even more so NATO, must ask a sensitive but crucial question: how does the Swedish government recruit 1.5-2 million new active-duty and reservist military personnel, without being infiltrated by radical Islamists? 

The gravity of this question will only grow with the rapid rise of Islamism in Swedish politics

All in all, Sweden faces a number of challenges in its bid to join NATO. We can only hope that its government will take its time to consider seriously the challenges that come with membership. 

And that NATO will do the same.

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.